With no threat of predators or the need to hunt for food, shelter, or find a mate, zoo orangutans have an extremely comfortable existence. But this also means that the smart animals lack the critical challenges they need for their mental and emotional well-being. To ensure that the curious mammals who share 97% of their DNA with humans do not get bored and depressed, zookeepers are always looking for new ways to keep them entertained and challenged.
The task has become a little easier with the emergence of smart touchscreen devices like iPads. Primates at zoos in many parts of the world including the United States and Australia now play computer games on a regular basis. In addition to keeping them engaged, these activities also help researchers get insights into how the mammals learn as well as their socialization patterns and memory.
The only drawback to using tablets is that the big animals inadvertently break the devices. Hence, a keeper always has to hold it from behind a strong mesh screen, which the animals put their fingers through. This means that they have limited interaction with the enrichment activity.
Zoo Victoria's Sally Sherwen believes that the quality of the mammals' lives could be further enhanced if they were involved in a play that allowed for full body movements. To come up with a solution, the animal welfare specialist partnered with researchers from the University of Melbourne’s Microsoft Research Centre for Social Natural User Interfaces (SocialNUI).
They began by dispensing with the fragile tablets and instead turned to the natural user interface technology that is used to control the Xbox Kinect through voice and body gestures. This allowed the team to project a full body-sized screen enabling the orangutans to physically engage with the assigned activities.
The trials that were conducted at the Melbourne Zoo for the entire month of February included six orangutans. Among them was 12-year-old Malu, an extremely curious and mischievous great ape. The first motion sensor game called Zap entailed interacting with a red dot that was projected on the floor of the orangutan's enclosure.
Malu did not disappoint. He immediately walked over to the dot, kissed it, and then watched with interest as it imploded upon sensing the touch. When the dot reappeared, Malu kissed it again. This made the researchers realize that orangutans are curious to touch objects with more than just their hands. Other orangutans reacted by covering the dot with straw and other objects they found inside their enclosures. To keep the primates challenged the developers upgraded the game to a larger, Tetris-like activity, allowing the animals to play using their entire body.
The mammals were also exposed to a fun painting app that created a paintbrush when touched but resulted in different reactions if the great apes waved their arms or rolled over the projected image. While all the orangutans figured out the challenges, it was Malu that impressed the researchers the most. He was so quick at solving the puzzles that the game developers had to keep devising new ones to keep him engaged. The insights gained from observing how the animals reacted to each problem, will help the Microsoft team to develop additional engaging digital content for these intelligent mammals.
The zookeepers believe that these activities along with traditional non-digital enrichment like painting and challenging the animals to seek out food hidden in the enclosure will ensure the orangutans remain happy and healthy.
Future plans involve using the technology to teach the animals to control the temperature and shade levels inside their enclosure. But best of all? They hope to train the orangutans so that they can challenge zoo visitors to a game of Zap, Tetris, or whatever else is on the agenda for the day!
While the Melbourne Zoo is the first to use the technology, the researchers soon plan to introduce it to zoos across the globe. They believe that such activities would help enrich the lives of not just the orangutans, but many other animals as well. So get your gaming skills sharpened. The day when you may be challenged to a Tetris game by a zoo resident is not far!